On Saturday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would “take a hard look” at running for president in 2020. As a registered Democrat, I agree with a wide range of Warren’s policies. But as a Cherokee woman, I cannot support her until she rescinds her false claims of Cherokee and Delaware heritage.
Warren’s ancestry first came under scrutiny in 2012 after it was revealed that she was listed as a minority in a directory for the Association of American Law Schools when she taught at Harvard in the 1990s. Warren proudly claimed that she is of Native American descent in a 2012 interview with NPR.
Her defenders may tell me she stopped publicly claiming to be Native American a long time ago. And while it is true she has edited her story to now describe her family as “part Native American” and herself as a woman “with Native heritage,” Warren has never stopped claiming her family is Cherokee and Delaware, despite having an enormous amount of evidence that says otherwise.
Racial identity theft is normally not socially acceptable. (Imagine Rachel Dolezal running for office.) But Native identity is a cruel exception to this social rule. After decades of being erased from almost every aspect of American society, Native people are not seen as real, and claims to our ancestors that have no grounding in reality go unquestioned. Racist cartoons, fake Indians, Halloween costumes and sepia-tinted photographs are more visible than contemporary, living Native people.
Most Americans know little to nothing about Native people, our history or identities, and as a result, in 2018, there is broad social support for a white woman who claims to be “part Native” based on no evidence outside of family lore. The fact-driven watchdog senator needs no proof. She said she knows who her family is and “no one can take that away.”
The politics of who is and who is not Indian has real consequences.
Warren is not alone. Twice as many people self-identified as Cherokee on the 2010 census than are enrolled in the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. Today you can find some of the hundreds of thousands Cherokee wannabes in the halls of art museums, starring on TV shows, dominating academic circles, supporting racist mascots and taking the place of authentic Native voices.
Warren openly admits you won’t find her family “on any rolls” — a line that raises red flags only for the very small sector of society that is knowledgeable about Cherokee genealogy. The widespread myth that scores of Cherokee were simply left off records whitewashes a brutally violent history.
The U.S. government, much like the Nazis during the Holocaust, kept very detailed records of its attempts at genocide — for (but not limited to) all the Cherokees the U.S. was preparing to remove from their homeland, every traveler on the Trail of Tears and their rations and all the Cherokee citizens who were given individual land allotments so their treaty territory could be dissolved and opened for white settlement, including those who were incarcerated for refusing to participate.
The issue with Warren is not that she isn’t on any rolls, that her nonexistent blood quantum is too low, that she can’t pass a DNA test or that we lack information about her family. The issue is that she claims to have a Native ancestor when there are none.
Some reports say that Warren is 1/32 Native American through her great-great-great-grandmother, who was described as Cherokee on her marriage license application. But the original application and marriage license have never been found to corroborate this story told in Warren’s family.
Her family history is not a mystery; her genealogy has been traced back to before the Trail of Tears to Revolutionary America, and no evidence of Native ancestry has been found. Her family is completely absent from over 45 records and rolls of Cherokee people from 1817 to 1914. In the same period, before Cherokees were citizens, her relatives appear in multiple U.S. censuses as white.
If Warren falsely claimed to be related to the queen of England or Elvis, people would dismiss her as a kook. If she falsely claimed her family members were survivors of the Holocaust, she would be admonished for appropriating and diminishing a genocide. Why are easily refuted claims to Native identity treated differently?
The politics of who is and who is not Indian has real consequences. Last month in Warren’s home state of Massachusetts, the Mashpee Wampanoag — the tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims — had their land taken out of trust because, according to the Department of the Interior, they no longer fit the legal definition of “Indian.” While the Mashpee Wampanoag are fighting for their treaty rights, a white man is suing the state of Washington to grant him status as a minority business owner based on the results of his DNA test. He tested as only 6 percent Indigenous.
The Trump administration’s action against the Wampanoag is the first time tribal land has been taken out of trust since Harry Truman’s presidency. Since taking office, Donald Trump has also moved to limit Medicaid access to Native Americans, diminished the Bears Ears National Monument, greenlighted the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the treaty rights of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and suggested privatizing all remaining tribal land. Natives need an ally in the White House.
We cannot continue to put people in power who show blatant disrespect and disregard for some of America’s most vulnerable residents.
To publicly admit her mistake not only would show her respect for Native people but also is the only position grounded in reality. At a time when our democracy is seriously threatened by “alternative facts” and fake news, how can we expect a woman who lies about her own history to lead us into a new political age?
Warren’s appropriation of Native heritage directly contradicts the progressive agenda she preaches. The U.S. government has outright stolen or attacked our land, our language, our culture, our women, our children and our self-governance. At this stage in American history, does our identity and history not deserve protection? We cannot continue to put people in power who show blatant disrespect and disregard for some of America’s most vulnerable residents.
For many, Warren’s policies or likelihood of defeating Trump negate the harm her false narrative reaps. As a Native woman who lives the consequences of these myths every day, I know it doesn’t. Public perception of Native identity has a measurable impact on Native rights. At a time when our rights are under attack, public discourse needs to uphold accurate and true information about Native identity.
Warren’s liberal defenders constantly email me, comment on my articles and send me Facebook messages that I should stop criticizing her because Trump is so much worse. They think that I don’t understand politics. If the better-than-Trump argument is going to be the left’s main defense for a problematic candidate, I predict the 2016 presidential election will repeat itself. We need a candidate who is a real antidote to Trump. A candidate who is wedded to the truth, whether or not it serves her.
If Warren could simply state, “Like many non-Native Americans, I grew up with stories that my family was part Cherokee and Delaware. After reviewing extensive research on my genealogy going back over 150 years, I now know these stories are not true. I am sorry for any harm my mistaken claims have caused,” I would publicly support her. Such a move would not only be moral and brave but would also serve as a great teaching moment for many Americans who do not understand why false claims to Native identity undermine Native rights.
We don’t know yet if Warren will run for president in 2020, but I know I will not vote for her or stop speaking up against her gross appropriation of Native ancestry until she stops claiming it. Her persistent claims to an ancestry that doesn’t belong to her send the message that the true history and lives of Indigenous people don’t matter.
Rebecca Nagle is a writer, organizer and all-around agitator for good. She is a Cherokee Nation citizen and a proud Two Spirit woman.